Even if he didn’t like Jim Jarmusch’s latest film, which I found immensely pleasurable and mesmerizing, I’m glad that Hollywood Reporter‘s Michael Rechtshaffen at least picked up on the fact that Bill Murray, who turns up very late in the film, is “channeling” Dick Cheney when he does. This is by no means a gratuitous detail. Trust a minimalist to make absences as important as presences. None of the characters in this movie is named, all of them are assigned labels in the cast list, and the only label assigned to Murray is “American”. Furthermore, unless I missed something, the European (specifically Spanish) landscape that Jarmusch and his cinematographer Chris Doyle capture so beautifully and variously, in diverse corners of Madrid and Seville, is otherwise utterly devoid of Americans of any kind — a significant statement in itself — until a foul-mouthed Murray makes his belated experience in a bunker, as ill-tempered as the American trade press is already being about this entrancing movie. Prior to that, we’re told repeatedly, in Spanish, by a good many others in the film, that he who tries to be bigger than all the others should go to the cemetery to understand a little bit better what life is: a handful of dust.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (February 24, 2006). I was shocked and upset to learn today that Michael Glawogger, the visionary Austrian filmmaker and world traveler, has just died from malaria in Liberia at age 54. The film of his that left the most lasting impression on me was the remarkable Megacities (1998, see first still below), which filmed people living on the edge in Mumbai, New York City, Moscow, and Mexico City — the first part of an epic documentary trilogy that was followed by Workingman’s Death (2004) and Whores’ Glory (2011, see second still below). I’m sorry to say that this capsule review below is the only time I had occasion to write about his work. — J.R.
In Megacities (1998), Austrian filmmaker Michael Glawogger emulated the city symphony films of the 1920s, and for this 2005 documentary about manual labor around the world he also references film history with clips from Dziga Vertov’s Enthusiasm and Georges Franju’s Blood of the Beasts during the opening credits. Glawogger shoots coal miners in the Ukraine and sulfur miners working a volcanic crater in Java, the slaughter and rendering of goats and bulls in Nigeria, and the dismantling of tankers in Pakistan, emphasizing the workers’ small talk along with their physical activities.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (October, 1990). — J.R.
This economically constructed and haunting chiller (1943, 66 min.) from the inspired team of producer Val Lewton and director Jacques Tourneur doesn’t have the reputation of the two other films they worked on together in the early 40s, Cat People and I Walked With a Zombie. In part that’s because its ending is a bit abrupt and unsatisfactory — but it’s still one of the most remarkable B films ever to have come out of Hollywood. Adapted from Cornell Woolrich’s novel Black Alibi by Ardel Wray and Edward Dein, the film employs an audacious narrative of shifting centers, thematically related by a string of grisly murders in a small town in New Mexico. Depending for much of its effect on a subtle and poetic nudging of the spectator’s imagination, the film has a couple of sequences that are truly terrifying. With Dennis O’Keefe, Margo, and Jean Brooks. (JR)
From the Chicago Reader (September 10, 1993). — J.R.
The least known, though far from least interesting, of producer Val Lewton’s exemplary, poetic B-films, this was withdrawn from circulation for nearly half a century due to an unjust plagiarism suit that Lewton had the misfortune to lose. Like many of Lewton’s best efforts (Cat People, I Walked With a Zombie, The Leopard Man), this is a taut thriller promising fantasy in its title but offering a dark look at human psychology that becomes even more disturbing through what’s left to the viewer’s imagination. The plot concerns a young third mate (Russell Wade) on a cargo ship who’s befriended by a lonely captain (Richard Dix), whom he gradually discovers is a disturbed tyrant with little of the self-confidence he initially shows — a cracked father figure whose crew is mysteriously loyal in spite of his weaknesses. Like Lewton’s other early pictures, it’s carefully scripted (by Donald Henderson Clarke), efficiently directed (by Mark Robson), and evocatively shot (by Nicholas Musuraca). This 1943 “second feature” boasts a large and well-defined cast of characters and a very involved plot, though it lasts only about 70 minutes — there’s scarcely a wasted motion, a bracing object lesson to nearly all feature makers today.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (January 26, 2007). — J.R.
David Lynch’s first digital video is his best and most experimental feature since Eraserhead (1978). Shot piecemeal over at least a year and without a script, this 179-minute meditation builds on Lynch’s Mulholland Drive (2001) as a sinister and critical portrait of Hollywood. But it resists any narrative paraphrase, with several overlapping premises rather than a single consecutive plot. Laura Dern plays an actress who’s been cast in a new feature, as well as a battered housewife and a hooker; there are also Polish characters and a sitcom with giant rabbits in human clothes. The visual qualities include impressionistic soft-focus colors, expressionistic lighting, and disquietingly huge close-ups. With Justin Theroux, Jeremy Irons, Karolina Gruszka, Harry Dean Stanton, and Grace Zabriskie. In English and subtitled Polish. R. (JR)
From the August 24, 1990 issue of the Chicago Reader. This is another film (see capsule review of Rita, Sue and Bob Too, posted earlier today) recently released on Blu-Ray by Twilight Time. For the record, I much prefer most or all of the features David Lynch has made since Wild at Heart, especially Inland Empire. — J.R.
WILD AT HEART
* (Has redeeming facet)
Directed and written by David Lynch
With Nicolas Cage, Laura Dern, Diane Ladd, Willem Dafoe, Isabella Rossellini, Harry Dean Stanton, and Crispin Glover.
The progressive coarsening of David Lynch’s talent over the 13 years since Eraserhead, combined with his equally steady rise in popularity, says a lot about the relationship of certain artists with their audiences. A painter-turned-filmmaker, Lynch started out with a highly developed sense of mood, texture, rhythm, and composition; a dark and rather private sense of humor; and a curious combination of awe, fear, fascination, and disgust in relation to sex, violence, industrial decay, and urban entrapment. He also appeared to have practically no storytelling ability at all, and in the case of Eraserhead, this deficiency was actually more of a boon than a handicap. Like certain experimental films, the movie simply took you somewhere and invited you to discover it for yourself.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (September 1, 1987). This film is now available on Blu-Ray from Twilight Time. — J.R.
Rita (Siobhan Finneran) and Sue (Michelle Holmes), two teenagers in the north of England who are the best of friends, lose their virginity to Bob (George Costigan), a suburban husband they sometimes baby-sit for, and before long their amicable three-way relationship is scandalizing the neighbors and members of their families, including Bob’s wife Michelle (Lesley Sharp). Shot in and around the town of Bradford in long, loping takes, this sprightly comedy, adapted by Andrea Dunbar from her own play, has some of the energy that one associates with the better exploitation films that used to be produced by Roger Corman. Television director Alan Clarke has a fine time showing how the working-class white and Pakistani communities rub shoulders with the middle class, and although the plot has curious omissions — we never discover, for instance, what Bob does for a living — the spirited acting and direction turn this into something of a lark (1987). (JR)
From the Chicago Reader (September 10, 2004). I think I underrated The Five Obstructions, which I now regard as my probable favorite of von Trier’s films, after having reseen it, remastered, on the DVD recently released by Kino Lorber. One obvious advantage to seeing it on DVD is that Leth’s 1967 short, The Perfect Human, is included in its entirety as an extra, and even though I find it less interesting than the various “remakes” included in The Five Obstructions, finally getting a chance to see it in its entirety makes the Leth and von Trier feature a lot more satisfying and interesting. — J.R.
The Five Obstructions
** (Worth seeing)
Directed and written by Jorgen Leth and Lars von Trier
With Leth, von Trier, Claus Nissen, Maiken Algren, Daniel Hernandez Rodriguez, Vivian Rosa, Patrick Bauchau, and Alexander Vandernoot.
What the Bleep Do We Know?
** (Worth seeing)
Directed by Mark Vicente, Betsy Chasse, and William Arntz
Written by Arntz, Chasse, and Matthew Hoffman
With Marlee Matlin, Elaine Hendrix, John Ross Bowie, Robert Bailey Jr., Barry Newman, and Larry Brandenburg.
When is an “experimental film” not an experimental film? This might seem a niggling matter to the ordinary paying customer, but it’s a serious issue for artists who’ve devoted their careers and lives to experimental filmmaking, knowing that they’ve given up the possibility of a wide audience by doing so.… Read more »
Written for Moving Image Source [movingimagesource.us], and posted there, as “Obscure Objects,” on June 19, 2008. — J.R.
He’s hardly a household name anywhere, yet there’sstill a striking discrepancy between the profile of filmmaker Marcel L’Herbier (1890-1979) in France and everywhere else —- almost as if a “not for export” label had been stamped on his forehead. Founder and head of l’IDHEC (l’Institut des Hautes Études Cinématographiques), the most famous French film school, for over a quarter of a century (1943-1969), as well as onetime director of the Cinémathèque Française (1941-1944), author of hundreds of articles, and a pioneer in French television who produced over 200 documentaries, he’s still better known today as the writer-director of about 50 films, mostly features. Yet none of these is easily obtainable in the U.S.
Probably the best known, formerly on VHS, is La nuit fantastique (Fantastic Night, 1942), a fantasy with Fernand Gravey as an innocent student literally pursuing the woman of his dreams (Micheline Presle) in his dreams. Both whimsical and disturbing —- with a happy ending even more troubling than anything that precedes it —- this nocturnal adventure conveys the dark, cavernous underside of the German occupation almost as pungently as Cocteau’s Orphée did retrospectively, eight years later.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (April 1, 1994). — J.R.
This third compilation of clips from MGM musicals — introduced, like its predecessors, by many of the leading performers (June Allyson, Cyd Charisse, Lena Horne, Howard Keel, Gene Kelly, Ann Miller, Debbie Reynolds, Mickey Rooney, and Esther Williams) — has so much pleasure to offer that any purist quibbles seem minor. Not only have writers-directors-producers Bud Friedgen and Michael J. Sheridan, who worked as editors on the two previous films, come up with heaps of wonderful and fascinating new material (excluded numbers from Singin’ in the Rain, The Band Wagon, Cabin in the Sky, The Harvey Girls, Easter Parade, and even I Love Melvin); they’ve also introduced a welcome critical note into the proceedings, demonstrating how dubious some of MGM’s aesthetic decisions were and allowing Horne to voice some of her own misgivings about the bigoted policies that limited her activity. Indeed, after Horne introduces her own clips, her terse introduction to an unused Judy Garland number from Annie Get Your Gun, “I’m an Indian Too,” doesn’t have to allude to the number’s racism because in the context she’s established the evidence speaks for itself. The original screen ratios of the films are generally respected — the rule apparently is broken only when the filmmakers are doing a montage or want the dramatic benefits of a full screen even if it means cropping the image.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (January 28, 1994). — J.R.
** THE ACCOMPANIST
Directed by Claude Miller
Written by Miller and Luc Beraud
With Richard Bohringer, Elena Safonova, Romane Bohringer, Samuel Labarthe, Julien Rassam, Nelly Borgeaud, and Claude Rich.
“About six years before the disappearance of Ambrose Small, Ambrose Bierce had disappeared. Newspapers all over the world had made much of the mystery of Ambrose Bierce. But what could the disappearance of one Ambrose, in Texas, have to do with the disappearance of another Ambrose, in Canada? Was somebody collecting Ambroses? There was in these questions an appearance of childishness that attracted my respectful attention.” — Charles Fort, Wild Talents (1932)
The Accompanist can be viewed as a producer’s film, as a writer-director’s film, and as a quintessentially French film. As a producer’s film, it is the latest in a recent cycle of French art movies involving classical musicians and including extended stretches of classical music — in other words, as a spin-off of Tout les matins du monde and Un coeur en hiver, both huge commercial successes, especially in France. As all three films have the same producer, Jean-Louis Livi, they can be regarded as “Livi films” rather than as the discrete expressions of three directors.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (July 1, 2002). — J.R.
I saw this French mystery thriller, the first feature of writer-director Gilles Mimouni, shortly after its 1996 release, and it left little residue. However, it has Romane Bohringer (Savage Nights), and that’s definitely a plus. Just before leaving Paris for Tokyo, the hero (Vincent Cassel), who’s engaged, thinks he spots an old flame (Monica Bellucci) in a cafe. He becomes obsessed with seeing her again, finds out where she lives, and hides out in her apartment — though he winds up having sex with Bohringer instead. In French with subtitles. 116 min. (JR)… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (June 8, 1990). — J.R.
*** (A must-see)
Directed by Paul Verhoeven
Written by Ronald Shusett, Dan O’Bannon, Jon Povill, and Gary Goldman
With Arnold Schwarzenegger, Rachel Ticotin, Sharon Stone, Ronny Cox, Michael Ironside, Mel Johnson Jr., and Marshall Bell.
The most influential SF movies of the past two decades are still very much with us, not only as landmarks but as continuing influences on newer release. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) gave us a whole slew of standbys, from the use of familiar brand names in outer space to a sense of visual design that, as critic Annette Michelson once put it, dissolved the very notion of the “special effect” as it was previously understood. In 1977 Star Wars popularized the notion of SF adventure as continuous action; and Close Encounters of the Third Kind the same year brought a certain pop religiosity (or perhaps one should say pseudoreligiosity) back to the genre, a combination of De Mille and Disney that sanctified Spielberg lighting as a means of bestowing halos on deserving characters, creatures, or locations.
Alien (1979) revitalized the claustrophobic horror-film dynamics of The Thing (1951), internalizing the monstrous and echoing David Cronenberg’s feature of 1975, They Came From Within.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (August 1, 1993). — J.R.
Probably John Boorman’s most underrated film — an impossibly ambitious and pretentious but also highly inventive, provocative, and visually striking SF adventure with metaphysical trimmings (1974). Set in a postapocalyptic society in 2293, it stars Sean Connery as a warrior and noble savage with dawning awareness; interestingly enough, the plot in many ways resembles that of Boorman’s best film, Point Blank. (JR)
From the Chicago Reader (June 1, 1990), tweaked in April 2014. This film is finally available now in a DVD that does its visuals (and John Alton’s cinematography) something approaching full justice. One of the juicier actors in this action romp that I should have mentioned is Arnold Moss, seen in the first still below with Robert Cummings. — J.R.
Along with James Whale’s The Great Garrick, this 1949 melodrama about the French Revolution, also known as The Black Book, is one of the few period pictures that qualify as film noir; Anthony Mann directed it with sumptuously arty chiaroscuro (cinematography by John Alton). With the two leads (Robert Cummings and Arlene Dahl) periodically steering it in the direction of camp, this film is loads of fun. Richard Basehart also stars (as Maximillian Robespierre, no less); Philip Yordan and Aeneas MacKenzie coscripted. 88 min. (JR)